George Lucas’ space opera Star Wars has left its mark as a blueprint for countless science fiction endeavors. The film encouraged many viewers to picture themselves amongst the stars, but it hits differently when those leading these extraterrestrial adventures don’t look like you. This is a common sentiment for Black audiences of science fiction. This genre, and Star Wars, has historically been complicated with its incorporation of Black people—from its lack thereof to its warped inclusion.
Even amid this discrimination, Black people have made major contributions to Star Wars and to science fiction. The efforts of Black people connected to the epic saga that is Star Wars have given hope and inspiration to many and continue to do so. In 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, the saga incorporated Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian. With off-the-charts charisma and talent, Williams entered into the Star Wars world as an intergalactic businessman, gambler, playboy, friend of Han Solo, and eventual rebellion forces general.
Even though Black actor James Earl Jones voiced Vader in each film of the original trilogy, Williams’ incorporation into the saga marked the beginning of the Star Wars Universe truly including Black people. Science fiction films haven’t always included Black folks, and to have Billy Dee Williams present in this film and its sequel as a billable costar opened doors for more Black actors to enter into the Star Wars saga.
And so they did, with Samuel L. Jackson highlighted as the franchise’s first Black Jedi in 1999’s The Phantom Menace as Mace Windu—paired with an iconic purple lightsaber. In 2015, The Force Awakens introduced John Boyega as Finn, the franchise’s first Black character in a starring role. Since, the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Ackie, Thandie Newton, Forest Whitaker, Rosario Dawson, Giancarlo Esposito, and Donald Glover have all entered the Star Wars universe. Whether on film or television, these Black actors have inspired new and old fans to see themselves represented in the science fiction genre.
Of course, the impact of the Black community goes beyond the screen. Without film executive Ashley Boone, Jr. in tow, Star Wars as we know it would have never seen the light of day. Skilled in film marketing and distribution, Boone was critical in the success of movies like Sounder, Ghostbusters, and The Omen. After reviewing a rough cut of the film, Boone was inspired by George Lucas’ creation; thanks to his tactfulness and a keen eye for impactful cinema, Boone made Star Wars the highest-earning film of all time at $776 million worldwide ($3.3 billion today) after a launch day in the summer of 1977. Without Boone’s presence in the film industry, there would be no Star Wars, let alone Black representation in it.
When done right, representation means everything. According to the #RepresentationMatters report conducted by the National Research Group, two in three Black people don’t see themselves represented onscreen. Proper representation imbues pride in viewers and allows folks to have their narrative, perspective, and identity seen and normalized. Not just for their community, but for those outside of it as well.
I recognize how the fantastical universe within Star Wars influenced my father, who in turn raised me to be a fan. What inspired us also inspires others. Movie representation inspires writers, actors, producers, and directors, who develop more inclusive properties that ultimately inspire a new generation of viewers, writers, actors, producers, and directors alike.
Representation isn’t just placing people onscreen. As influential as Black actors have been, the lack of inclusion and discrimination that comes from behind scenes can overshadow it all. When John Boyega was introduced as Finn, it was a pivotal moment in Star Wars history to have a Black actor starring in one of the properties—even more so for him to appear to be Force-sensitive. However, the announcement of his casting was met with racist backlash—something various movie fanbases have been exhibiting.
Unfortunately, as the lone perceivably Black actor (Lupita Nyong’o was a CGI alien for each film, leaving the trilogy without visibly highlighting Black women until the final movie), his character’s future within the Star Wars universe was sidelined, as were those of Oscar Isaac and Kelly Marie Tran, two actors of color. Meanwhile, the narratives of Kylo Ren and Rey, portrayed by white actors Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley respectively, were further elevated as the trilogy progressed.
Shoving Boyega’s role to the wayside, in addition to other Black actors, set back any attempts to develop a well-rounded Black character. Boyega’s recent lambasting of Disney, in addition to the recent racist attacks on Star Wars: The High Republic host Krystina Arielle, demonstrates the double-edge sword of Black people being incorporated into the Star Wars legacy.
And Black audiences take note, with four in five Black Americans able to discern when Black stories or characters weren’t made by Black people. So, for Star Wars to continue promoting an inclusive universe, it requires them to include Black artists in every area of the operation. Had there been more Black writers present, how would Finn’s story turn out? Would there be more Black actors present on either side of the force? Would there be more Black directors for Star Wars’ properties? What would the galaxy be like if it were shaped by the minds of Black storytellers?
Hindsight is 20/20, and in 2021 we can learn from the wrongs of the past to establish a more inclusive future for the Star Wars Universe. These changes will not erase what happened previously, but will give a new hope to Black audiences all over who can see themselves in the same universe as everyone else. That’s the power behind representation—to take fantasy and use it as a catalyst to inspire changes in reality. With that power, the options are endless, if we take into consideration the Black talent and effort that can bring together new narratives, new adventures, and new takes on an old story in a galaxy far, far away.
Featured Image: Lucasfilm